I have never felt right about going to bed without taking that last trip to the barn for night check on my animals. I grump a bit pulling on my boots and shrugging on a coat on a cold night, but once there, I have never regretted going out. For your horse’s health it’s an important thing to do.
Besides the very real connection with your animals before you go to bed, there are practical aspects to doing a nightly bed check. You are really going out to throw everyone some more hay, but you notice things when you are there. It might be the feed door that wasn’t properly closed, or a light that has been left on. If you are like me, you say “hi” to your animals and maybe scratch them behind the ears when they poke their heads out. It’s a special time, but you can also make it a conscious time to check on your animals.
Here’s a quick review of what to look for which shouldn’t take you any longer than two minutes. It’s really about being aware. Make it a point to visually check each horse. Look at them head on to see if both eyes are wide open. Are they standing square, with weight on all four legs? They will probably move some as you greet them. Are they walking OK? Is there anything unusual about their attitude tonight? No one knows better than you how your animals act and react. Is the horse who usually greets you at the stall door hanging back? Is the one who usually hangs back wild eyed tonight?
You want to be sensitive to anything that looks or feels different. If an animal doesn’t seem just right, get a halter on him or her and check the animal’s temperature, pulse, and respiration. Listen for gut sounds. Check the manure in the stall. Is there more or less than you would expect? Is it too loose or too hard? Is it just this one horse that doesn’t seem right? Do all the other animals look OK?
If something is amiss you will have to decide whether to call your veterinarian or let the situation go until morning. If you do call, have your observations written down. If you haven’t taken the sick horse’s temperature before you get on the phone, you will be asked to go back out and get it. Listen for gut sounds on both sides behind the rib cage and be ready to report if they are present or not, and on which side. If it’s a sick horse, note the heart rate. If an eye is half shut, use a flashlight to look closely at the cornea to see if there is a puncture or an ulcer. Check the pupil size of the injured eye and compare it to the other eye. If the horse is standing off of one leg, take a few minutes to pick out the foot, looking for a loose shoe or a possible nail in the sole. Run your hand down the leg to check for swelling or tenderness.
Some situations you may encounter can wait until morning; others can’t. Give your vet enough information to make that decision. I can tell you from years of experience, we’d much rather come to your barn at 10 PM than 2 AM.
For me, late night barn check is that last, quiet connection with my animals each day. Heading back to the house I know I’ll sleep better. Make night check a quick health check and you will as well.
–David A. Jefferson, DVM